The Tacoma Retired Men’s Book Club will meet April 2nd, 2015 to discuss:
Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, Columbia University Press, 2014.
Four handouts were passed out at our last meeting:
Essays by Wendell Berry: What are People for? (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990):
“An Argument for Diversity” pp. 109 – 122
“What are People for?” pp. 123 – 125
“Word and Flesh” pp. 197 – 203.
Alan Thein Durning, “The Six Floods,” an article excerpted from, This Place on Earth: Home and the Practice of Permanence, published by Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 1996.
And now I add another reading, a short, but complete, FORUM essay from the distinguished geo-physical journal EOS, written by John M. Wallace, an atmospheric scientist of the University of Washington. I ask you to read this because it speaks in plain language about the Climate Change controversy and the problems of scientists and credibility, and getting their word out with the proper framing rhetoric. The following PDF file can be magnified and the works in the citations (some indicated in my quote of the passages) might be excellent follow-ups to our reading. The scientist Johan Rockström, whom I earlier sent out for his recent TED-talk, is included in this paper (“A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature, 461, (2009) 472-475, doi:10.1038/461472a).
The citation for the article is EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, Volume 98, No. 11, 13 March 2012. This issue of the journal is page numbered 117 – 124. The article by Wallace, “Weather- and climate-related extreme events: Teachable moments” is found four pages from the beginning, on page 120. Here is a link to that issue of the journal.
Here are four passages from the EOS article to whet your appetite:
It is difficult for the public to grasp the significance of global warming because the mildness of its early symptoms belies the gravity of its long term consequences. Mindful of the human tendency to discount the importance of events seen as occurring far in the future, many scientists and science writers have come to regard newsworthy weather and climate-related extreme events as “teachable moments” that serve to illustrate the importance and immediacy of the impacts of human-induced climate change.
The problem with this approach is that the attribution of extreme events is often viewed as gratuitous and labeled as fear mongering. A more effective communications strategy, in my view, is to use these events to illuminate society’s increasing vulnerability to natural disasters in the face of our deteriorating planetary life-support system.
When scientists and science writers insist on framing the narrative about extremes mainly in terms of climate change, they fall into a rhetorical trap. If they claim that droughts, heat waves, floods and storms that qualify as extreme events today will become much more common toward the end of the
century (Meehi and Tebaldi, 2004; Burke et al., 2006) their warnings do not convey a sense of urgency because they relate to the statistics of events occurring at a distant time.
On the other hand, if scientists emphasize the contribution to global warming in accounting for the severity of today’s extreme events (Trenberth, 2011), they can be faulted for not being able to provide a credible, quantitative measure of just how much it contributes. Opponents of environmental protection exploit the inherent limitations of what statistics can tell us about today’s extreme events to cast doubt on the immediacy, the seriousness, and policy relevance of human induced environmental degradation and to portray the scientific community as “crying wolf.” This rhetorical loophole will gradually tighten as the impacts of climate change become more pronounced later in this century, but we can ill afford to wait that long to address global warming and other pressing global environmental issues.
Arguing about whether or not today’s extreme events are early indicators of climate change does nothing to advance the priority of global warming and other pressing environmental issues on our national policy agenda. The real significance of extreme events is as harbingers, not just of a changing climate but also of a changing world in which human society and the infrastructure that supports it are becoming increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters. The mounting disruptions in their wake reveal the progressive deterioration of our planetary life-support systems. Extreme events are, indeed, teachable moments: “wake-up calls” that an environmental crisis of global proportions is imminent—much more so than the subtle and sometimes ambiguous early warning signs of global warming might lead us to believe. (John M. Wallace, “Weather- and Climate-Related Extreme Events: Teachable Moments.” EOS, v. 93, No. 11, 13 March 2012, p. 120)
From Myth to Science
Before February 2015 and Peter Farnum’s selection of Anne Wroe’s Orpheus: The Song of Life, I had intended to follow that choice with a translation of Apuleius’s Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass, the first complete extant novel of the ancient world. A shift from the humanities to science in the modern world seemed preferable from the number of conversations I was experiencing in coffee houses. So now I will save the ancient work for my selection next year. It may have been too much to delve into mythology over a two month period.
However in selecting Naomi Oreskes’ and Erik Conway’s brief science-fiction exercise in assessing climate variability and its potential cataclysmic effects over planet Earth, I realized I would encounter narratives of our time that could better be couched as mythological rather than scientific. In discussing the massive clouds of information that are presently raining down on us from all the old print media and in the new electronic media, it is difficult not to be mentally polluted from time to time, to spout off about the newest things that came through the news as plausible; then to realize by noon, that someone with a “Dr.” prefix or named “Science Reporter” showed on “News Today” the story was a hoax or at least a questionable hypothesis. Since the Enlightenment and the Philosophes’ concern for true and definitive knowledge to help solve all humankind’s problems, the term “science’ has also been used to dignify all sorts of studies, e.g. the “science says” fallacies of advertising. Democracy is used in the same way to dignify Republican and Communist regimes that are in no way democratic.
“Nothing new under the sun” is without doubt an arguable phrase. Nothing is certainly known in every detail about nature. Lewis Thomas (The Lives of a Cell) said the only solid piece of scientific truth he knew is that we are profoundly ignorant about nature. When bathyspheric exploration of the deep trench of the Galapagos Rift discovered creatures of no known taxonomic zoological order, it seemed something new to human knowledge came to light. I’m not a scientist by degrees in education or practice. Nevertheless, steeped in humanities, I have held from childhood a deep interest in scientific research, sometimes puzzled by highly specialized mathematical data, but able to comprehend arguments and presentations so long as the writing and evidence have intelligible aspects for my level of generalist curiosity. The latest phase, “ The End of Nature” studies (à la Bill McKibben), has been a great part of news and coffee-table conversation, I imagined we could all dig into this subject and have a cogent discussion— to sort some things out.
Much thinking and knowledge can be accounted as provisional in this world, e.g. political and social reforms, weather forecasts, medical doctors’ diagnoses; likewise much is probable and much based on presumptions. As a book club collective of scientists, scholars of different fields, and intelligent generalists of many arts and sciences, what I think we might consider regarding The Planetary Crisis and Climate Change is the following: how we might approach the data of science and why it’s important; how do we deal with the prognostications of large international scientific committees; and how to digest the attitudes of politicians and government officials and manage the arguments and quarrels among friends and family.
Beyond matters clearly deducted and dependent on specific facts, we also manage a realm of thinking and decision making in matters of substantial argument, based often on experiences and a system of values that possess a degree of cogency. Finally, then, let’s discuss some practical matters: what behaviors we might adopt in meaningful ways to persuade other people to think clearly for themselves about the terrible things that might arise (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, wildfires, etc.) and what activities we might practice to better the situation regarding the degeneration of the natural places around us.
David R. Gilmour, March 26, 2015